Hives. Hives. Music. Aids. Aids.
My friend Sheena made an art project called the HIV/AIDS Mix. It was a collaborative work where she asked participants to take a moment to think about a song that, for them, related to the pandemic. This could be extremely personal or topical, anything they wanted. After she collected 10 or so titles, she created a mix CD in the order of each song’s receipt. The power of this gesture was that, as a collectively produced mix CD, the affective links that each participant made with their own contribution was multiplied throughout the compilation. The chance order of the tracks allowed for meaning to build upon meaning, and made for compelling insight into people’s different relationships with popular music and HIV. But it was upon the first listen that the work really made its impact on me as participant and listener.
I was the first to contribute and received a disc within a few weeks. I was so excited to get it and rushed home to my grim little apartment on the edge of a highway onramp. I don’t know whether it was the excitement of receiving the mix CD or the exhaustion of having partied too much the 3 nights before, but I felt feverish as the first track played. As I heard Elliott Smith perform “Can’t Make A Sound,” a familiar wave of emotion struck me, having listened to the track on repeat the day of my HIV-diagnosis several years before. The final brassy horns faded away and a slow yet deep rumble of percussion ushered in the next track: Diamanda Galas’ “Let Us Praise the Masters of Slow Death.”
Percussion and ululation. My heartbeat accelerated and I became delirious. The orange light flickering through my window gave me the impression that my bedroom was on fire. I sweated and cried. I hid beneath the covers for fear of some terrible retribution. Where Smith’s voice had cushioned, soothed, and supported me, Diamanda’s voice threatened, mourned, and pierced my heart with its unrelenting intensity. For what seemed like an interminable and unflinching period of time, I curled up in my bed, a thrall to her voice. Is this what it was like to live while your whole world crumbled and those you loved succumbed to those masters of slow death? Was this the legacy I was born from, initiated into through the mixing of blood and cum? These questions were my fear, the gift of an irrational wisdom and raging calm.
What followed was silence and breath… And Xiu Xiu’s “Hives Hives.”